Review by Sean Boelman
Taking its name and core inspiration from the legend of Latinx folklore, calling Jayro Bustamante's newest film La Llorona a horror movie would be doing it a grave disservice. A wonderful and nuanced political thriller, this may not be traditionally scary, but it creeps under the viewer’s skin with ease.
The movie follows an ousted general who, while on trial for genocide he committed decades ago, experiences visions and delusion that get worse upon the arrival of a young new native maid. It is interesting to see how Bustamante and co-writer Lisandro Sánchez took this well-known myth and turned it into something modern with a strong political message.
Despite the fact that this is based on a classic ghost story of folklore, the film is not bound by traditional genre conventions. Bustamante is more concerned with exploring the themes of the script, simply using the supernatural and psychological horror elements as vectors for his political commentary.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that the main characters aren’t meant to be particularly likable. Even though it is hard to rally behind the family of a genocidist, Bustamante recognizes the potential for the audience to learn from the repercussions that such horrific and deplorable actions have.
And unlike most films that feature an unlikable protagonist, this is not a tale of redemption. Instead, it is a depiction of suffering and consequences. Anyone who is familiar with recent Guatemalan history will know that the country and its people were shaken by civil war to a point that may never be fully recoverable. This is why the movie ends up being so resonant and emotional.
The cast assembled for the film is absolutely wonderful. Julio Diaz gives a harrowing performance as the dictator, nailing both the moments of senility and the terrifying brutality which he can display. Also standouts are Sabrina De La Hoz and María Mercedes Conroy, who bring a great deal of subtlety to their respective characters.
Bustamante does a good job of creating the eerie atmosphere for the movie. There are few jump scares and minimal use of shock, the main methods of building tension being the cinematography by Nicolás Wong and score by Pascual Reyes. Much of the film takes place within the confined location of the characters’ estate, and viewers feel trapped as a result.
La Llorona may not be what viewers expect, but Jayro Bustamante has created an uniquely haunting film. It’s a politically dense movie that will benefit from an understanding of its context, though it’s plenty well-crafted enough to be appreciated regardless.
La Llorona streams on Shudder beginning August 6.